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1864 - Monument or Bust!

April 1864 saw the celebration of the Tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. A monument to Shakespeare was created in Pall Mall which now stands in New Place garden and a replica of Shakespeare's Birthplace was built and opened to visitors in London's Crystal Palace.

Robert Howe
New Place monument
Monument in the Great Garden, New Place, c.1871

In April 1864 there were concerts and performances in London to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare. At the time funds were being raised in London and in other places to pay for the purchase of New Place in Stratford, or rather to repay James Orchard Halliwell who had paid for it in 1862 and was Secretary of the Shakespeare Fund. Whilst he was owner and until he had been repaid he prevented any monument from being constructed in New Place Gardens. The Grade II* monument that is in New Place gardens today was in Pall Mall in 1864.

There had been an attempt to produce a monument to Shakespeare at Stratford. One site was at the top of Bridge Street. Stratford Corporation rejected all of the sites other than New Place for a monument. But there was another Shakespeare Monument Fund in London looking to unveil something of a Shakespearian nature on 23rd April 1864: it had no site and no monument or bust.

Back in 1862 a model of a Shakespearian monument had been produced for the International Exhibition at South Kensington by Mr. John E. Thomas who was a very prolific sculptor. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy and had produced monuments, statues and complete buildings for royalty at Balmoral, Windsor and Buckingham Palace. He had statues in Glasgow and Edinburgh, at the Menai Straights Bridge and at Euston and Paddington stations but he was most famous for the ones on the Houses of Parliament. His full-size monument would have been available for the Victoria Embankment when that had been finished. It may have been the original idea for the Gower Monument in the Bancroft Gardens in Stratford.

For the 1862 International Exhibition which was held where the Natural History Museum is today he had to produce a reduced scale model in plaster. He was told that if he wanted a monument inside with the fine art, and not in the Horticultural Society Garden outside with the statues, it had to be reduced. He also had other exhibits, some of which were in the gardens. 

Illustrated London News
John E. Thomas' Monument to Shakespeare from Illustrated London News

The reduced monument was to fit in a space in the garden entrance to the exhibition with a maximum headroom of 30ft. So he produced a monument of over 20ft in height overall with Shakespeare himself atop who was 8ft high. The Illustrated London News of 27th June that year stated “the present position of the monument is certainly disadvantageous – a view at the proper distance for examination being impossible”.

But all this was too late for Mr Thomas. The strain of producing his monument and getting it inside the exhibition building caused him to take to his bed at his home in Paddington where he died on 9th April even before the exhibition opened. He was only 49 and had started work on statues for Birmingham and Islington and was going to start work on a monument to the Prince Consort for Stroud in Gloucestershire near where he was born and who had died earlier that year. 

For the 1864 Tercentenary a celebration was organised for the Crystal Palace. There was already a copy of the bust in Holy Trinity Stratford in the Crystal Palace which may have been left over from the 1851 Exhibition. It was decided to erect a full scale copy of the Birthplace near it and open it to visitors on 23rd April.

Mr E.T. Parris who was famous at the time for decorating the inside of the dome at St Paul’s Cathedral spent the early part of 1864 measuring up and drawing the real Birthplace in Henley Street and then constructing a copy in the central transept at the Palace. Two rooms were open to the public within the ‘Birthplace’. Even the fences at the ends of the real Birthplace were reproduced.

Birthplace from Henley Street

Also at Henley Street in Stratford Messrs Negretti & Zambra had taken photographs of the Birthplace, copies of which were handed out on the day at the Crystal Palace. The 23rd April was on a Saturday in 1864. The weekend entrance rate was reduced to the weekday 1/- and 11,561 people paid on the first day of opening.

Mr Thomas did not live to see the 1864 Tercentenary Celebrations in London where his model of the Shakespeare Monument was erected on the Upper Terrace outside the Crystal Palace. 

Shakespeare Monument outside Crystal Palace
Illustrated London News

I have to acknowledge the use of original illustrations from the Illustrated London News and articles from the same and the London Evening Standard and Morning Post obtained from the British Newspaper Archive and also the minutes of the Shakespeare Monument Committee. 

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